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Should you avoid aspartame?

Steve Snodgrass

The harmful effects sugar can have on the body has been given a lot of attention. Known for sabotaging diets and packing on extra calories, many people try to avoid sugar by seeking out artificial sweeteners as an alternative. But according to a new study by the Harvard Medical School, one common sugar substitute, aspartame, could be sabotaging your diet, too. And ironically enough, it is often used most in “diet” products (diet soda, for example).

To understand more about this study, this week on “Take Care” Dr. Richard Hodin, professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, discusses the effects of aspartame on the body.

Aspartame is a chemical sweetener that can be found in everything from soda, to processed desserts, and even condiments like ketchup. And ironically enough, it is often used most in “diet” products (diet soda, for example).

Although there are a handful of artificial sweeteners currently sold on the market, this particular study focused on aspartame alone. Aspartame breaks down into phenylalanine, a chemical known to block important enzymes in the intestines. This knowledge, Hodin said, is what prompted the experiment. The researchers at Harvard Medical School sought to understand the effects of aspartame on the body, so they conducted a series of experiments, including on lab mice.

And the findings were revealing. According to this study, aspartame did indeed block intestinal alkaline phosphatase, or IAP, in the lab mice. IAP plays a pivotal role in overall intestinal and digestive health, and when inhibited, had noticeable negative effects on the mice, namely, a predisposition to obesity and diabetes.

According to Hodin, there hasn’t been enough research to determine the amount of aspartame that will cause a serious problem. And considering a majority of the experiments are conducted on mice, the results won’t necessarily mirror aspartame’s effect on humans.

But what researchers do know is, when IAP levels are low, animals tend to gain weight, develop diabetes, and experience other bodily changes consistent with metabolic syndrome, such as a fatty liver, which can eventually lead to heart disease, the leading cause of death in America.

These findings might be upsetting for many, given all the loyal diet soda drinkers out there. So often, we think we’re doing all the right things to lose weight, and it turns out our trusted diet products are doing more harm than good. How could a zero calorie soda be bad, right?

Because weight maintenance is about more than calories in and calories out, said Hodin. There are other important factors involved in gaining and losing weight. And although more research is necessary to determine exactly how aspartame affects humans, Hodin was confident that it would cause the same IAP blockage that was seen in the lab mice.